H By Daniel Rubin
AMBURG, Germany (KRT) – The first person to go on trial on charges of aiding the Sept. 11 hijackers acknowledged Tuesday that he had trained at an al-Qaida terrorist camp in Afghanistan, but denied knowing anything about the suicide attacks his friends were plotting.
Mounir el Motassadeq, a 28-year-old Moroccan engineering student, declared his innocence to the five-judge panel that will rule whether he belonged to the Hamburg cell of Islamic militants that led the attacks and whether he was an accessory to the murders of 3,045 people in New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania. If convicted, Motassadeq faces up to 15 years in prison.
Kay Nehm, Germany’s top federal prosecutor, has described Motassadeq’s role in the cell as “a cog without whom the thing would not have worked” and has accused him of funneling thousands of dollars to the Sept. 11 pilots, who were his friends and fellow students in the northern German port city.
During a break Tuesday, defense attorney Hans Leistritz said, “Our client was not the paymaster of the attackers in Hamburg, let alone of Osama bin Laden.”
The trial, which could last until spring, is expected to open a window into the secretive Hamburg cell and a more-than-yearlong German investigation that involved unprecedented international cooperation. More than 160 witnesses could be called.
Wearing a loose-fitting gray jersey and a trimmed beard, Motassadeq (Moh-tah-SAH-dek) answered judges’ questions in German for two and a half hours, his voice calm, his words measured. Motassadeq, the judges and the lawyers sat behind a wall of bulletproof glass separating them from spectators.
Motassadeq’s acknowledgement that he had traveled to Afghanistan came as a surprise. He had denied it to German investigators, and said Tuesday that not even his wife or father knew.
Asked when he last saw his friend Mohamed Atta, commander of the Sept. 11 attacks and the pilot of the first plane that struck the World Trade Center, Motassadeq said it was when he consulted with Atta as he was preparing to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
For three weeks in the summer of 2000, Motassadeq said, he learned how to shoot a Kalashnikov assault rifle at the training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, which was then a Taliban stronghold. Two other alleged members of the Hamburg cell were there, he said – Zachariya Essabar, who is wanted by German authorities, and Abdelghani Mzoudi, who was arrested in Hamburg earlier this month.
Motassadeq said he knew the camp was run by bin Laden, who had visited before, but that he had never heard the words “al-Qaida,” the name of the Saudi millionaire’s terrorist organization.
While proclaiming belief in nonviolence, Motassadeq said his understanding of the Koran compelled Muslims to train with weapons. He likened his training to service in the German Army.
The Marrakech-born student arrived in Germany in 1993 and after two years mastered enough of the language to enroll in an electrical engineering program at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, where he met Atta. Motassadeq said they often talked of the plight of the Palestinians and of the rebellious Russian republic of Chechnya. He said Atta and Marwan al Shehhi, who piloted the second airliner into the World Trade Center, headed to Afghanistan in November 1999 to train to fight in Chechnya. At the camps, however, Atta and al Shehhi were told there were enough fighters in Chechnya, Motassadeq said.
Upon Atta’s return, he told Motassadeq he was moving to Malaysia to continue his graduate studies, the defendant testified.
Prosecutors contend that the Hamburg cell – composed of at least eight students, three of whom died piloting the hijacked planes – were planning an aerial attack on the United States by fall 1999 at the latest, and their actions arose from what Nehm called “a hatred of worldwide Jewry and the United States.”
“Like other group members remaining in Hamburg, (Motassadeq) was involved in the attack preparations up to the end,” Nehm said in August, announcing the indictment. “He knew the objectives of the organization that were aimed at committing terrorist attacks and he supported the planning and preparation of these attacks in multiple ways.”
Prosecutors say Motassadeq controlled al Shehhi’s bank account and covered for the students while they were away from Hamburg and preparing for the attacks.
In an interview with Knight Ridder two weeks after the attacks, Motassadeq said he casually knew the pilots from Hamburg’s al Quds mosque and from the university, where he had studied with two of them.
When he learned they were being blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks, “I was shocked,” he said. He told CNN last fall that it was common for foreign students to name friends as co-signers of their bank accounts, according to Ruediger Bendlin, a spokesman for the technical university, who sat in on the interview.
“He said he had power of attorney for al Shehhi’s bank account, but he never moved any money through it,” Bendlin said. “He said he did it `because we are friends. Because we are Muslims. We trust each other and it is quite normal for foreign students.’ “
Authorities questioned Motassadeq six days after the attacks, but had insufficient evidence to detain him. After learning he’d bought tickets to fly to Morocco, they arrested him Nov. 28 in his home, where he lived with his wife, Maria Pavlova, a Russian who also studied electrical engineering at the university. The couple has two children, ages 2 years and 10 months.